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7 February 2011
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Cult Presents: Sherlock Holmes

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New Sherlock Holmes Stories The Deer Stalker
by Paul Cornell

From the Journal of Dr. John H. Watson:

I write as best I can, in this darkness, illuminated only by a grating to the street. Holmes has disappeared, lost of his own accord. I have done my best to follow his example, if not his person. I could not leave London, but I feel sure that he has. I think I know where he has gone. It is best, at this point, if we are not together.

I sit alone in a wine cellar, the second level of a coal cellar beneath a building which has been sold but into which a tenant has not yet moved. It is the kind of abode found by beggars. But it is a situation that I have mentioned nowhere in my writings, and which therefore I hope may remain unknown to those that seek me.

I hear some of the noises of London life continuing above me and outside. Things are perhaps more quiet than they should be. The inhabitants are wary, hungry for news, aware of the attacks on myself and on my friend, and anticipating another outrage, while understanding the nature of the raids. I am gambling the lives of all those folk that no assault will find me here. None of these buildings could hope to withstand the weapons these bandits have at their command.

Holmes will surprise the pirates. They will not find him, he will find them, as he has done so many times before, and this time he will not fall into their trap. I know his methods. I have faith in them and in him.

I must embark upon my account, fragmentary as it is, for the sake of history. Let others... I pray, let Holmes, if you are reading this, dear friend... make sense of it.

I do not know where it began. But I shall begin it with Mrs. Hudson having her fit.

I had entered 221B to no greeting from Billy or from Holmes' housekeeper, the door being surprisingly open, and had made my way to the kitchen upon hearing a noise.

Holmes had his fingers in Mrs. Hudson's mouth as she thrashed to and fro. His form was pressed up against hers in the corner of the room. She made noises like an animal, and was spitting blood, both his and her own.

I quickly took her from him, and assured him there was no possibility of her swallowing her tongue. I placed her in a more secure posture on the floor in order to check her vital signs.

"It is intolerable," Holmes muttered, absently holding his white, bitten hand. "When she entered this state I had no knowledge of what to do, I could only guess. What good could I have been to her? Tell me, have I even injured her?"

I was about to reply in the negative when a thin sound escaped the lips of the pathetic woman. "They're through," she said. "They are here."

I paid her no heed, taking her words to be the meaningless spasms of the organ of thought in crisis. "I shall send a message to St. Luke's, and I will make sure there is a bed for her at once."

"'They are here.' What can she mean?" asked Holmes, rhetorically, his face still a portrait of compassion. "Nothing for us, but perhaps everything for her."

That, I am sure, was the point. The point where Holmes, and the world, started to be wrong.

* * *

The next few days were busy for me, both looking after my own practice, going home to my... no, to one of the poor women that I have, in the course of these narratives, referred to as "my wife" but who the world would doubtless refer to as... I shall use the word and rely on your tact, old friend, as I slowly realised during our acquaintance I must always have relied on it in this matter... 'a dollymop'. Yes, there, it is out. I shall not drag her name into print. I do not wish to make a character out of her. Let them make of that not what they will but what I make of it, which is that I loved her... But I must not divert myself. I also spent time seeing that Mrs. Hudson got the best treatment available to her.

Holmes I saw little of. I assumed, by the cries of the newspaper sellers, that his thoughts would be taken with the latest outrage they described, a new series of murders committed in a style quite similar to those that had baffled the police in the latter months of 1888. At that time, Holmes had kept his distance, thinking in a brown study but never leaping to his feet with the quarry in his sights. I, and others of my profession and acquaintance, convinced the killer was a medical man, or a man of science, awaited such a move most hopefully, but it had never come.

Perhaps it was that these squalid, meaningless murders were unworthy of Holmes, the creations of pathology rather than the superior intellects he was used to matching wits with. Indeed, this time the killer was being bolder than ever: seen running from the scenes of his crimes, heard laughing, noted by many observers as being dressed like a gentleman. It was as if he had decided to live up to the inflated accounts of himself that were the lifeblood of the penny dreadfuls. And such arrogance in the face of the law would, all thought now, surely sooner or later lead to arrest. It was astonishing that the police had not caught him already, leading me to think that there was perhaps another dimension to this man and his deeds, a dimension that would be a matter for my friend's intellect.

It was with this in mind, eager to discover Holmes' thoughts on this matter, that I returned to his rooms a week or so after Mrs. Hudson's visitation.

My finger was on the bell when something made me turn.

Perhaps there had been a sound. If there was, I cannot recall hearing it.

There was only darkness against darkness in the building overlooking my friend's rooms, on the other side of Baker Street. But by one particular window, the shape of that darkness had changed.

I give myself credit for my actions now. I looked back to the door and pressed the bell, for all the world as if I had only been breathing deep of the late November air. I waited, my senses stirred to a pitch of battle, as Billy opened the door and bade me enter, and even waited a moment as he closed the door behind me.

Then without shedding my coat and hat I ran up the stairs to my friend's room that faced onto the street, ran like the devil was on my heels!

The light of the lamp was on. I could hear Billy crying out behind me.

I burst into the room. "Holmes!" I shouted.

The shot came through the open window. It blew the stuffing out of the pillow that stood atop the hatstand.

I threw myself to the floor and bellowed as Billy opened the door. "Stay there, boy!"

But the boy entered the room, breathing not only from his run but from the emotional faith that my friend inspires in all those who know his methods. "Mr. Holmes' complements, sir," he said. "And could you be joining him on the top floor of the house opposite. The door is open."

* * *

I was later to discover that the round that had passed through the window had flattened itself against the hardwood of one of Holmes' bookshelves barely an inch from my ear. And the intuition of that fact followed me down the stairs and into the street. I took a moment to catch my breath before venturing into the second rate townhouse opposite.

I found Holmes standing at the window of what looked like it had once been a library, or a study similar to his own. Beside him lay a rifle of extraordinary construction: it was a slim beast, with sights the memory of which even now confounds me.

"Good Lord, Holmes," I said. "What has happened here? Was I the target, or -?"

"No, Watson. It was I. I had become aware of certain trends within the underworld, a movement of Cubans through the docks, Italians, Bolsheviks... So I contrived a trap, as I did once before. However... somehow our assassin has contrived to elude me. And I am at a loss to explain how."

He listened with interest to my account of being shot at.

"A second assassin, in one of the other houses, while the promise of a first lured me here. The aim from this window covers the street. See, it is impossible to fire successfully through my window from here."

"So I was their target?"

"If you truly were, old friend, I suspect you would be dead. No, this is a feint, a poke in the ribs. And from someone who knows of our history, eh? You have mentioned the incident I referred to in your accounts, have you not?"

I allowed that I had.

Holmes directed me to examine the weapon.

I must confess I flinched at the sudden closeness those extraordinary sights provided. "Holmes, this rifle, I have never seen the like."

"No," said Holmes, his eyes locked on the distance. "Neither have I."

Author's Notes
Paul Cornell is a novelist and television writer, whose SF novels Something More and British Summertime have been published by Gollancz. He's written many episodes of British TV shows, including one for the upcoming series of Doctor Who. His comic strips include XTNCT in the 2000AD Megazine. He lives in Oxfordshire.

Paul has this to say about writing the story.

"I've always been fascinated with the gaps in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the stuff that we don't see about how Holmes functions as a real person. Conan Doyle, I think, realised that Holmes is one particularly attractive/ugly aspect of the male psyche made flesh, almost incapable of a complete literary life, and so suggested that Holmes 'switches off' between cases with his drugs, almost as if he really doesn't exist when one isn't reading about him.

Such figures may be only sustainable in their own settings, especially when that setting is a Victorian one. There, in its cliché version (a cliché born largely of the Holmes stories themselves) we can imagine such stark psyches might fit in, because of, oh, something about stiff upper lips, repression, etc., despite the fact that Watson is a trembling turmoil of all those huge male Victorian emotions. If we could look from a distance at what happens when Holmes is taken out of his setting, we might find the sight of it very funny or very disturbing, for what it says about the differences between his historical background and our own times, about what we want and need Holmes to be. But we're generally still too much in the forest of post-Victorianism to do more than wince at the tree of say, Matt Frewer in a deerstalker.

I was pleased to see that the recent new Rupert Everett Holmes story on BBC1 engaged with some of this stuff, exploring Holmes as a real person in real time, and this story is my attempt to do the same thing."

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